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Deep Dive

These TV Composers Have Solved The ‘Rubik’s Cube’ Of Working Virtually And Without Full Orchestras

As the pandemic enters its eighth month in the United States, home recording, mixing individual tracks and virtual spotting sessions have replaced gathering large, cheek-to-jowl groups of musicians an…

Although recording studios have reopened since the pandemic shuttered them in the spring, the process of composing and recording film and TV scores remains drastically altered. With some preliminary research indicating that singers as well as woodwind and brass players can emit respiratory aerosols at a significant rate — raising the odds of infecting others if they are carrying the coronavirus — and new safety protocols established by state governments and musicians’ unions, composers are no longer able to conduct their work as they have in the past.


“It was a ‘Rubik’s Cube,’” says Genevieve Vincent, whose latest work includes the score for The Broken Hearts Gallery, a theatrical film executive-produced by Selena Gomez that opened in September.

“I’m a very hands-on music producer, so for me, it has completely altered the dynamics and the process of recording,” says Miriam Cutler, whose scores include the documentaries RBG and Love, Gilda.
They are among the composers who spoke to Billboard about the workarounds they have devised to get the job done during the pandemic. 

Conducting Virtual Orchestras
In April, House of Cards composer Jeff Beal was set to record a 25-member chamber orchestra playing the score he had composed for Breaking News in Yuba County, a comedy starring Mila Kunis and Allison Janney. When the pandemic struck, he scratched those plans and commissioned seven musicians to record their respective parts at their homes, on their own equipment — banjo, guitar, violin, viola, piano, bass and clarinet — over several days. Beal sent each musician a reference track and gave everyone guidance on what he expected.

“The mixing of it is really a challenge,” says the five-time Emmy Award winner. “You are electronically trying to make it sound like everyone is in the same acoustical space and making music in a natural way.”

Jeff Russo was preparing to record the music for an entire season of CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery — 13 episodes — when the pandemic shut down recording studios. In the first two seasons, arrangements for each episode had routinely included as many as 60 musicians.

Russo reduced the number of musicians to 40 and, like Beal, had them record themselves performing their parts on multiple tracks at home. Russo and the series’ production team then screened dozens of those tracks to cobble together the score, weeding out those flawed by exterior noises such as a barking dog or a passing car. In the midst of postproduction, Russo was able to move back into Newman Scoring Studio on the Fox lot, with 38 string players — the maximum number allowed under new protocols set by Los Angeles County with input from the American Federation of Musicians Local 47. He conducted the musicians from behind a plexiglass barrier approximately 15 feet high. The string players wore masks, and four woodwind and eight brass players stayed home, recording themselves on their own equipment. (Russo recorded himself on percussion.)

Russo declined to say which of the Star Trek: Discovery episodes feature scores that were done virtually versus in the studio. “I’m very curious whether people will notice a difference, whether they will know when the switch happened,” says Russo, who won an Emmy in 2017 for his work on the FX series Fargo.

Socially Distanced Studio Work
As private production and recording studios reopened in June, Cutler set out to record the theme for PBS’ American Portrait with a rhythm section, strings and three vocalists. While the orchestra members recorded themselves individually at home, Cutler met her engineer and the vocalists at Los Angeles’ EastWest Studios after each tested negative for COVID-19. Inside the studio, the vocalists were separated by plexiglass and their microphones were strategically placed to ensure the vocalists projected their voices (and any aerosolized droplets) forward instead of onto their fellow singers. “Normally they would be watching each other’s movements close up because they do things as a unit,” says the composer, adding: “It was weird but they made the best of it.”

Once she figured out the recording logistics, Cutler says she then had “to find willing musicians. A lot of musicians are not comfortable doing this. Then you have to question yourself: ‘How important is this to me?’”

Later in the summer, Cutler mapped out a new approach to record the score for the documentary Til Kingdom Come. She halved the number of string players for the session from eight to four in order to properly distance them in the studio and then used overdubbing to create a bigger sound. She also used EastWest to record a harp and piano instead of bringing the musicians into her home studio. Four musicians including Cutler recorded multiple tracks of instruments ranging from electronic and acoustic bass and guitar to woodwinds at their respective homes.

Other composers have also returned to the studio, but new COVID-19 studio protocols present their own set of challenges.

In August, nine string players gathered for five hours at Hollywood Scoring in Los Angeles to record Beal’s score to the Oliver Stone documentary JFK: Destiny Betrayed. They wore masks and were seated six feet apart. Three other musicians — one on French horn, one on English horn and clarinet, and another on jazz bass — recorded themselves in their home studios. Beal, whose multiple sclerosis puts him in a high-risk health category for COVID-19, conducted remotely. “It was like trying to ride a bicycle with a remote control,” he says.

The musicians, who usually sit within inches of each other, had to re-create the concept of an ensemble while seated six feet apart. “The sense of blend and ensemble that is natural for musicians, those things happen because of physical proximity,” says Beal. “They can hear each other in the headphones they wear, but it’s just not the same as the normal experience of being in a room acoustically.”

Composing With Computers
In some cases, composers have forgone live orchestras and virtual recordings for computerized and synthesized scores. Russo says the score for the new Peacock series Brave New World was initially recorded with a live orchestra, but after studios shut down, he and his collaborator, Jordan Gagne, transitioned to creating the score using computerized, or “in the box,” sound, Vienna Ensemble Pro and Pro Tools. Russo, whose recording studio is based at Hollywood’s historic Raleigh Studios, created a makeshift studio in his home. “I put computers in a spare bedroom… and put on headphones while my kids were doing remote schooling,” he says.

It was fortuitous for Vincent that her latest score is for a contemporary thriller film that she cannot name due to a nondisclosure agreement. From the start, she says she suggested using synthesizers and in the box electronic music for the series score.

“Synth and doing something that sounds a little more contemporary and technological are very in line with the subject matter of the film,” says Vincent. “On the other hand, it’s super convenient, and I can control and do everything.”

Writing Scores Without Scenes
Scores are typically recorded once a TV episode or film has been shot, but that has changed for some composers. Siddhartha Khosla is into his fifth season of scoring This Is Us, which is set to premiere Oct. 27. With a compressed shooting and production schedule, Khosla created the initial score this past summer using only the script instead of footage.

“Almost always, you see the picture and then you work,” says Khosla, who was nominated for an Emmy this year for his work on the show. “In this case, I’m writing stuff beforehand.” Instead of finding it frustrating, the composer adds, “It’s kind of cool. The producers get to hear the music beforehand and it might inform what they’re doing on set a little bit.”

Spotting By Zoom Beats Slogging Through L.A. Traffic
Music postproduction continues to undergo many changes as well. Gone are the “spotting” sessions where showrunners, the composer, and music and picture editors convene to brainstorm about the score. Spotting sessions have moved from cramped rooms on studio lots to online video meetings and take place at the beginning of the postproduction cycle for each episode.

“I personally love being in the room with people I’m composing for because you learn a lot from body language and behavior,” says Sean Callery, a four-time Emmy winner who finished scoring the final season of Homeland before the coronavirus curtailed routine postproduction.

“Knowing the showrunner is incredibly important,” he adds. “The more you understand that person’s vision for a show, the more you understand how that person thinks and what that person responds to, the smarter you’ll be in creative choices, and more magic can happen in the relationship and in the collaboration.”

And yet, Callery says he does not miss having to drive crosstown in Los Angeles traffic to get to a spotting session. “I think spotting by Zoom is here to stay,” says the composer, whose virtual collaboration with Manny Coto, a showrunner for the new Fox series neXt, was made easier because they had worked together previously on 24. “With each day we’re getting closer to communicating as effectively and creatively in a virtual room as we would in an actual physical space.”
When mixing the sound for episodes of neXt and CBS’ Bull, Callery says everyone reviewed the final mixes individually by watching and listening on their home headphones and computer speakers instead of on professional-grade studio speakers.

“We realized midway through the mixing that we were getting notes saying ‘this is too loud’ or ‘this is too soft’ when talking about the same moment in an episode,” recalls Callery. He and the engineers soon developed a “predictive understanding of what that meant,” explaining that if one individual was an outlier, Callery and the main engineer would check the sound at the source to evaluate. They quickly identified whose speakers and headphones may be off — and which notes they could ignore.

Other shows have found a different solution: The same headphones were issued to everyone on the postproduction mixing and editing team.

Backyard Demos
For the most part, the production of animated films and TV series continued because character voice-overs could be recorded safely at home initially, before actors went back into the studios under new safety protocols. Timelines, however, for completing projects were stretched out, as safeguards were put in place, once actors were allowed to return to studios this summer.

Over the summer, the husband-and-wife team of Michelle Lewis and Dan Petty, along with co-songwriter Kay Hanley, wrote songs for the animated series Ada Twist, Scientist, a co-production of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions that Netflix plans to release.

The trio typically writes and records together in Lewis and Petty’s L.A. home studio using keyboards and guitars. With five songs and a theme to write before the show started recording at the end of summer, the trio couldn’t delay the process. So, the process moved outdoors around the couple’s backyard fire pit, and the resulting songs were recorded on the trio’s mobile phones. From there, Hanley and Lewis recorded their vocals individually in the home studio. Hanley went first, then, after a 24-hour pause, the studio was sanitized and Lewis took her turn. These demos were used as guides for the pre-tween Ada Twist actors who will eventually perform the songs. To keep the production moving, Netflix also sent recording kits to the voice actors and instructions on how to soundproof a room at home, says Lewis.

Despite the discomfort of working in the July heat, Lewis says she preferred the process to virtual writing sessions over Zoom. “I get impatient with the sonic latency,” she says, using as an example the clumsiness of a group singing the “Happy Birthday” song to someone via a video app. “If I’m going to write with someone,” says Lewis, “there’s plenty of space in our backyard to bring the guitar back there.”